The victory of Jeremy Corbyn, elected as leader of the Labour Party, has shattered the austerity consensus that has dominated British politics for the last five years – and the neo-liberal consensus of the last two decades or more.
His election will have the effect of a dam breaking in British political life, shifting the centre of political gravity to the left. His victory is all the more remarkable for being so overwhelming. Corbyn won in the first round of the ballot, taking almost 60% of first preference votes, after an extraordinary campaign, following the resignation of former leader Ed Miliband after Labour’s general election defeat in May.
Few even expected that Corbyn would secure a place on the nomination paper against the outright Blairite Liz Kendall and centre-right candidates Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham. He was actually helped onto the ballot paper by receiving nominations from fellow MPs who didn’t support him but thought it was important to have a debate. But his campaign rapidly built an enormous basis of support, both inside and outside the Labour Party, assisted by the Labour Party’s new internal electoral system introduced following the 2014 Collins Review. In addition to votes cast by party members, new categories of voters have been introduced: individuals can become registered supporters of the party, or affiliated supporters if they are members of Labour-affiliated trade unions. All votes count equally rather than the previous weighted system and an alternative vote system applies. The Collins reforms were introduced to smash trade union influence but paradoxically they have unleashed huge grass roots input instead which has turned out to be far more left wing – and therefore massive support for the Corbyn campaign. Corbyn was also boosted by early support from two of the largest trade unions – Unite and Unison, together with the fact that he was the only one of the four candidates who opposed the Conservative Government’s Welfare Bill, tabled during the campaign, which introduces massive cuts to state benefits.
By the cut-off date for registration of 12th August, the Labour Party had gained hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters, with an enormous influx in the final 24 hours – in fact the online system crashed due to weight of numbers, so the deadline had to be extended. The final tally of members and supporters was over 600,000, up from around 200,000 voters at the general election. Most opinion polls in June and July had shown Andy Burnham to be in the lead, but all polls in August showed Jeremy Corbyn to be the favourite – backed up by the odds indicated by bookmakers. The extraordinary level of popular support for the Corbyn campaign dominated the media throughout the summer, amidst reports of packed meetings every night – thousands of people turned out to hear Corbyn in towns and cities across the country. Both the attendance at the meetings and the polling figures show enormous public support for the policies which he espouses – many of them the policies of the radical left.
As a Corbyn victory became increasingly likely, the Labour Party establishment displayed considerable alarm, with senior party figures urging members and supporters not to vote for Corbyn. These included former party leaders Blair, Brown, and Kinnock, as well as former ministers Jack Straw and David Miliband. The general thrust of the argument has been that Corbyn would make the Labour Party unelectable: reducing its appeal to the electorate as a whole by standing on a far left programme. Critics of the Labour establishment, however, point out that presenting a softer version of Conservative policies or ‘triangulation’ has not resulted in electoral success for Labour. Corbyn also faced political attacks during the campaign with ludicrous allegations being made that he is an anti-Semite and a supporter of IS; the BBC devoted a ‘Panorama’ programme to an outrageous attempt to undermine his support just days before the ballot closed. Yet none of the attacks appeared to impact on the support for Corbyn and his leadership campaign.
Initially this support could be seen as a further manifestation of the deflected radical left vote seen in the general election (for Greens, Scottish Nationalists and others to the left of Labour) but the scale of support required a change of assessment: from seeing Corbyn as a marginal protest figure whose candidacy was necessary as a point of principle for the residual left in the Labour Party, to seeing Corbyn as a likely winner who has actually become a new expression of the radical left in Britain. Those on the radical left in Britain have always asserted that Britain is not immune to European political trends but that its political peculiarities – such as the first past the post system – have prevented a European-type manifestation of such policies. Almost by chance, Corbyn has become the conduit for this alternative politics, and its emergence from within the Labour Party has enabled it to hit the mainstream of British political life in a way that other organizations have been unable to achieve.
As the campaign gathered momentum, there has been some migration of membership from other left parties towards the Labour Party, together with individuals in other organisations signing up as Labour supporters in order to vote for Corbyn. However, the Labour supporter category explicitly rules out those who support an organization opposed to the Labour Party – widely understood to mean standing against the party in elections – and requires support for the aims and values of the party. On this basis, the Labour leadership has introduced a system to scrutinize all applications to ensure that those attempting to join are not ‘entryists’ from other parties seeking to subvert the process, whether from left or right. Amid media frenzy, thousands were denied votes on the basis that they were members or supporters of other parties. The final electorate was probably around 554,000 – some of those signing up were excluded on political grounds, some were duplicates and some not on the electoral register.
What does this mean for the left and the wider movement? The Corbyn campaign has acted as a significant pole of attraction to those open to supporting what are effectively radical left policies. Support has been drawn from those consciously seeking such policies – whether currently members of Left Unity, the Green Party, or other left groups, as well as from non-aligned individuals attracted to Corbyn’s policies on a class, movement or trade union basis. Many are former Labour Party members who have rejected the embrace of neo-liberalism or Blair’s war on Iraq and see Corbyn as reinstating the real values of Labour. Many, especially young people, are attracted by hope for something different, an anti-corruption, anti-establishment vote, such as attracted many to Podemos in Spain.
Whilst many have opted for Labour membership or supporter status, others see themselves as supporters of a wider Corbyn movement outside the Labour Party, which includes those on the radical left.
Corbyn will now face exceptional difficulties in attempting to establish his policies as those of the Labour Party. The majority of the parliamentary party will be against him and the internal democracy of the party has been hollowed out in recent decades to the extent that party conferences exert little influence over the direction of the party. He could potentially gain support of a majority in party’s National Executive Committee but it is questionable as to how much power now resides in that body. An influx of left-wing party members will be relatively powerless to affect the balance of forces within the party machine and elites, certainly in the short term, although the position taken by Britain’s trade unions will be important. Significant unions such as Unite and Unison have backed Corbyn’s candidacy and it is possible that non-affiliated unions may choose to affiliate in order to support his leadership.
It is unlikely that the Labour Party – having thoroughly embraced neo-liberalism – can now buck the European trend and revert to social democracy. Corbyn’s victory will trigger a huge struggle within the party which will almost certainly be irreconcilable; as has been observed, the Labour Party now includes both PASOK and SYRIZA within its ranks and it is inconceivable that the Labour establishment will accept a left turn. In this situation, the radical left remaining outside of the Labour Party is certain to want to work together with the left inside, strengthening an extra-parliamentary movement in support of Corbyn’s policies.
But as the struggle progresses in the next weeks and months, the reality is that large sections of the British electorate now reject the austerity narrative, to the point where its hegemonic nature can be questioned. Thatcher’s slogan – ‘There is no alternative’ - setting economic liberalism beyond question, has finally been challenged in mainstream British politics. How the alternative – now dramatically posed by Corbyn and his supporters within the Labour Party, as well as Left Unity and others on the radical left outside, together with the movements and some of the trade unions - can be best articulated and most effectively won, is the most important question facing the left in Britain today.